Crafts Industry Rebuilds
Economy in Many Rural Areas
Becky Anderson realized one day that as the local timber mills and textile factories closed down and the trains stopped running in her native Appalachia, people began developing a disturbing syndrome.
"We're so poor, we're so needy, we're so dumb. Let's hope somebody from the outside will come in and save us," Anderson said in describing the attitude. She added, "We've said this for so long that we've started to believe it."
She and others in the area of Asheville, N.C., decided to stop concentrating on the negatives and look at what they had.
As Anderson recalls, they saw the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains, miles of hardwood timber, the right clay for pottery, and the people who turn those resources into art.
That's when Handmade in America was born. Its mission was to develop a sustainable community program using handmade objects. It now has a mailing list of 3,000 people including hundreds who have toured craft and artisan sites in the 21-county region of western North Carolina.
"I think it can work anywhere," said Anderson, who left her job at the Chamber of Commerce to pursue the project. "I think as long as people step back and look at where they come from and who they are, they can use asset-based planning as a cornerstone of their economy."
More and more communities are also seeing things Anderson's way. Tired of competing for big industry, which often requires huge tax breaks that may cancel out job benefits, they have looked to small crafts in their backyards. Many have been surprised by the rich heritage they find there.
Anderson certainly was when she reviewed the local inventory. The nation's oldest continuing folk school, John C. Campbell Folk School, is in Brasstown, two hours from Asheville. The Qualla Craft Cooperative sits on the Cherokee Indian Reservation in Cherokee, N.C. Several community colleges offer craft courses. Black Mountain College in Spruce Pine became a center of contemporary crafts after designers from the German Bauhaus school found refuge there at the onset of World War II.
Handmade's first big project was the self-guided Heritage Trail book. Tourists can stop at sites on the map to see or buy the work of different artisans, whether it's a potter at the wheel, or a jewelry maker with a small shop. The sites include restaurants and bed and breakfasts.
With almost 400 sites along the trail, Anderson estimates that the 15,000 people who have bought the $11 trail guide additionally spent between $200 and $400 dollars along the trail, whether on objects, food or lodging.
Handmade also started a credit union as well as a revitalization project for small downtown districts in the region.
Anderson hopes Handmade can help replace a boom-or-bust economy. In Appalachia and all over the country, the final bust has inspired some people to seek economic redemption without losing the rural nature of their communities. If a pulp mill isn't the answer, then maybe once taken for granted crafts, like quilting or pottery, are.
A group of women in Lewisburg, W.Va. -- an area of beautiful rolling hills, lots of sheep, but not too many jobs -- found an answer in knitting. Appalachian By Design sets up contracts for hand-knit items, between buyers and about 60 knitters around the state.
The contracts are designed to avoid any element of exploitation. "They are not our employees," said administrator Caroline Kuhns. "The reported exploitation of homeworkers has been an issue in cottage industries, so we are careful to make that distinction."
"The network trains knitters and, just as important, teaches them about small-business administration. That way, the knitters have the tools to start their own business with Appalachian By Design as just one of their contractors. It's a micro-enterprise that has been noticeably successful," Kuhns said.
While quilting and knitting are traditional in Appalachia, the arts and crafts economic movement reaches into every corner of the country.
Starry Krueger, president of the Rural Development Leadership Network based in New York City, works with groups from the Freedom Quilting Bee in Alabama to the Native Women's Cooperative in Oklahoma.
"People are talking a lot about micro-lending, but a lot more is involved, like the development of people's skills with this kind of work and the development of confidence of people in poor communities," she said.
Krueger says marketing is a major need in rural arts networks. She works to help the groups with direct mail and Internet marketing.
Anderson also admits that the arts and crafts movement can't provide the up-front low-skill jobs that a factory could. But she wants to get crafts into the everyday lives of her region, for example, urging brides to register at craft shops, encouraging churches to incorporate handmade objects in their ceremonial articles, and suggesting that restaurants use local potters and other craftspeople for their tableware.
In many places, the success of crafts depends on the tourist trade, which happens to be healthy at the moment.
James Thibeault is trying to establish a craft network along the historic Midland Trail in southeastern West Virginia. He directs Cabin Creek Quilts, West Virginia's oldest cooperative, which established a national market for homemade quilts.
"There's a renewal in people motoring around the country, and when they buy crafts, people think they're getting closer to the people where they're traveling," Thibeault said. "You want to discover rural areas and the indigenous crafts there."
Ann Miller Woodford agrees. A native resident of Andrews, N.C. (pop. 1,500), Woodford makes African-American rag dolls and paints. Encouraged by the success of the Heritage Trail, she plans to open an arts and crafts gallery in Andrews in September. A nearby woodworker told her he'd been contacted by more people in the past six months, after joining the Heritage Trail, than in all the previous year.
"It's made a great difference in business because tourists can now find us and buy our crafts," she said. "So it's really special for us."
Krueger, of the Rural Development Leadership Network, thinks the government should support these kinds of efforts. Anderson would agree, but also points to Santa Fe, N.M., which turned art into an economic force that created one of the wealthiest towns in the West.
But until that time, Woodford, Ortega and others will keep quilting, weaving, sculpting, taking these so-called cottage industries into something that might get tax breaks of their own someday. A characteristic of all these rural areas is the loyalty of their residents. "A lot of people want to stay in the valley and they don't want the environment destroyed," Ortega said. "For a lot of us, this work is survival."
Posted July 21, 1997
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